Surviving the Ironman 70.3 Swim

Of the three disciplines in this multi-sport craze that has positively afflicted our nation and the sporting world — I’m referring, of course, to triathlon — to me, the most difficult is the swim.

Biking and running, I’ve always enjoyed. I grew up pedalling BMW bikes with my brother Charlie in Bacolod City. Running, thanks to those elementary days dribbling the basketball in La Salle, is easy and natural. We are land-based creatures and cycling and jogging are not performed at sea. The swim? Unlike others who grew up on water, my comfort level when wearing goggles and moving forward horizontally is bad. In my two previous triathlon events (the “8080” races organized by Steve Maniquis and the Cornerstone Group), the stress levels just thinking of the swim were “high tide.”

I joined the Cobra Energy Drink Ironman 70.3 race last Sunday. How was the swim?Brutal. Scary. Difficult. Physically and mentally exhausting.

I positioned myself among the very last triathletes to do the swim. Since the new ruling was no longer based on your age grouping but on your “expected split times,” I didn’t want to get swum over by faster swimmers. I stayed at the back and chatted with Atty. Jess Garcia.

As I stepped on the timing mat before entering the water, I checked my watch. It read “7:00.” Good, I told myself. It will be easier for me to check the cutoff time of one hour 10 minutes. That would be at 8:10 a.m.

The first 100 meters was a straight path. I swam relaxed. Having warmed-up properly, I deliberately swam slow. “Relax, relax, relax” were the words my mind uttered to itself. Surprisingly, the start was easy. Wow. If it will continue like this, it will be a good day. At the end of the initial start, we all turned left. This time, it was a 400-meter stretch. (The entire swim is 1.9 kms.) Even better, the current was behind us and many swam in long and smooth strokes. Yes! Upon reaching the giant yellow buoy, we turned to deeper waters for another 50 meters.

After that short path, we turned right. This stretch, the longest in the rectangular-shaped route, was 850 meters. This was when the torture started.

You’re swimming free-style, punching one arm after another into the Hilutungan Channel, trying to move forward — but you’re barely moving. You exert more effort; slow-motion, fatiguing, arduous. Worse, you’re not swimming in a wide ocean that’s free of obstacles. In front of you are fellow strugglers. To your left is someone doing a wide-open breast-stroke. To your right is another swimmer. Behind you is someone pulling your leg.All this time, you’re surrounded by bubbles and splashes and waves and kicks.

The key word is “relax” but how can you when you’re struggling and barely moving forward?I was hit in the face where my goggles got dislodged. Once — not to the same swimmer and it was accidental — I elbowed hard a participant’s nose. That hurt. I wanted to apologize but he just kept on going.

Many times, I held the buoy just to keep afloat. Five seconds later and having taken a few deep breaths, you’re off again. This isn’t an all-day-I-can-relax Sunday. There’s a time limit and the current was too strong.

My improvised strategy was to breakdown the long stretch into short segments. Big red buoys would be recognizable (in between were the smaller yellow ones). “Just swim to the red buoy!” would be my mantra.Midway through the route, I saw Tinago Brgy. Captain Joel Garganera. We both complained. But there was no choice: either you go or quit.

Slowly, meter-by-meter, red buoy after yellow buoy and swimming like a cha-cha dance where you’d move forward then backward then forward, we charged on. Towards the end of the 850-meter stretch, just when we were yards away from the big yellow marker, people were shouting. A jetski and several boats circled the area. Waves grew taller and the current was at its worst. We were told to cross to the other side. I had to shout to a boat marshal so I could hang-on for a few seconds.

After crossing, I checked my watch. It read “8:02.” Oh no! I was dangerously close to being cutoff. With the current behind our backs, we torpedoed as hard as we could. It was the final few hundred meters. Luckily, as I reached the shore, I made it in1:08. The sad part was: I lost my watch. While going all-out in this final stretch, it must have been hit by a fellow swimmer or just fell off my wrist. And this was the inaugural (2012) Timex commemorative edition given by Princess G. Anyway, after surviving the swim, I trudged on.


BE PROUD. To all who braved the waters last Sunday, finisher or not, kudos to you! Everybody concludes that, in the seven-year history of IM70.3 Philippines (three in CamSur and four in Cebu), that was the toughest swim leg.

DISTANCE. I did a quick survey with some friends on the swim distance and a few recorded a distance of 2.2 kms. Jonel Borromeo’s Garmin recorded that length. A friend told me his was 2.5K. It might have been the back-and-forth due to the strong current; I’m not sure if the rope/buoys got carried farther because of the current.

STAGGERED SWIM START. I think this is favorable to the participants. The idea that you can swim alongside your coach or spouse (as many did), or at least swim with those of the same ability — that’s good. I believe this is better than a “mass start” (the same one as the previous years).

As explained in the excellent blog by Betsy Medalla (, the problem was that majority of the swimmers swam that 850-stretch around 7:30 a.m. onwards. We swam during the worst possible two hours of the month of August. As we say in Bisaya, “Malas lang gyud” (just plain unlucky).

Given the low/high tide information, the only thing the organizers could have done differently was to reverse the sequence. The slowest swimmers swim first! The elite triathletes swim last — and they’ll endure the current.Ha ha. This would have provided us (slower ones) with calm waters at the start. Obviously, this is a preposterous idea. Not possible. But there’s nothing much the organizers could have done, except….

TIME EXTENSION. Good that the organisers extended the time. Can you imagine if they did not? Hundreds and hundreds would have been cutoff — you can easily check it by scanning through the finishing times in the website. Some exceeded1:30 or 1:40. Because this 70-minute (timing chip) cutoff time ruling was disregarded, this favored those who swam earlier. They had extra time (head start) compared to those who started at the back..

(QUESTION: Why only 70 mins. cutoff for the swim? And a generous 4:30+ for the bike? There should be more “allowance” for the swim…)

NEXT YEAR… For the August 7, 2016 race (Asia-Pacific Championships), I checked the tide chart and it looks to be very favorable.

Next year: Low tide of 0.3 meters is at 7:09 a.m. (right smack when the majority of the swimmers are in the water). High tide at 1.6 meters is still at 1:26 p.m. This compares to last Sunday when the low tide was an early 5:32 a.m. This one hour 37-minute gap should be very favorable to us. Hopefully (barring other weather factors such as typhoon, etc.), the Mactan waters next year should be kinder..

Conclusion: In 2016, perfect conditions to Tri’ again!

John Pages

By John Pages

I've been a sports columnist since 1994. First, in The Freeman newspaper under "Tennis Is My Game." Then, starting in 2003, with Sun.Star Cebu under the name "Match Point." Happy reading!

1 comment

  1. Good Job John! Yes there is always next year to TRI again…. BTW Thanks for the plastic bags sa transition 😉

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